House on fire. Because Mayo keep on turning up, it was always likely that they would be the team to draw Dublin's six-year All-Ireland conquering tear to a close.
The All-Ireland champions went down in flames on a rainy, unforgettable Saturday night. It finished 0-17 to 0-14 and in the end, the house that had looked unimpeachable for the best part of a decade was torn asunder in mere minutes. This was not the rich operatic classic these two counties have produced before: it was too untidy and wild and spiteful for that. But for all that, it contained the usual magnificence of spirit.
Nobody knows a thing. The old lecture that the team who finally beat Dublin would have to score 20-plus points? Here, they were beaten by 17 scores, each a torpedo strike, delivered over almost 100 minutes of football. It seems strange to think it now but the All-Ireland champions were still five points to the good, 0-12 to 0-07 with 63 minutes on the clock. The ship might have been leaking and listing, the sirens sounding but they were close enough to see the lighthouse keeper waving at them. All they had to do was steer it home. But by then Dessie Farrell had long since begun issuing life jackets.
There was no obvious sign that Dublin were about to fall in the first half because Mayo were struggling pitifully to register scores in the swirling poisonous air
“I don’t know to be honest,” said the Dublin manager, reeling in the aftermath. “I have to look at the tape. I just think it was that high press, there was a strong breeze down there. It was tough to watch that second half for sure. A lot of those lads have been such warriors over the years.”
Dominant Dublin first half
In truth, they were surviving on muscle memory and the reliability of Dean Rock’s score taking for much of the night. In the first half, Dublin owned the ball and had the reserve of energy to glide and elide the Mayo tackles. It presented the illusion of authority and know-how as they recycled passes around the fringes of Mayo’s defence. Those long periods of possession gave the crowd time to think about what they were watching here. There was no obvious sign that Dublin were about to fall in the first half because Mayo were struggling pitifully to register scores in the swirling poisonous air. But they were, in the end, a world removed from Jim Gavin’s original vision of hyper-entertaining attacking football.
Maybe they knew. Maybe, by keeping the ball and imposing a rigorous order to the night, they might have engineered a win. Because once the game began to fragment and Mayo introduced their own brand of antic, spontaneous energy, the effect was like amphetamines on the dance floor.
Colm Cooper once said that the worst thing about Dublin, in their pomp, was that they behaved as though you weren't on the field. Now, Mayo did the same thing to the champions, their hyper-athletes – Durcan and O'Hora, the splendid Keegan and Matthew Ruane – rampaging through the collapsing Dublin super-structure to inspire a series of points against which the Dubs were helpless.
Tommy Conroy couldn't have heard the gauntlet laid down by Pat Spillane on national radio on Saturday afternoon – to show that he belonged in the elite company of sharp shooters. But he proved it anyhow with three late outrageous points. On a night when Aidan O'Shea struggled, players like Stephen Coen, Jordan Flynn and, most prominently, Ryan O'Donoghue emerged as leaders. James Horan, moving like a Stoic through the fire storm, calmly made huge calls, inserting the live-wire Enda Hession and Brian Walsh to the front line.
McLaughlin was due to undergo surgery for a double-jaw fracture on Sunday and won't play football again for some time
“Not much. Just got back to our structure a little bit,” was Horan’s explanation for perhaps the most sensational charge of Mayo’s decade of sensational charges. “I got a bit caught at the end because when the three minutes went up, when I looked at it I thought there were still three minutes to go. So I couldn’t believe it when he put his arms out. I got a nice surprise there.”
By then, the night was rife with football ghosts. So many not there: Gavin, Connolly, Brogan, McCaffrey, Mannion and, of course, Cluxton, the solemn spirit guide behind the decade.
It felt like it would go on forever until it did not. Just 0-4 in 63 minutes of football. For the first time since 2009, Croke Park felt like a lonely graveyard for a Dublin team. There were only 24,000 people there and an early autumn breeze carried the Mayo cheers as they reeled off a further three points in injury time. The Dublin tackling grew wild and careless in the rain and Horan was visibly angry at the thumping shoulder from John Small on Eoghan McLaughlin, who was knocked senseless.
“I was pretty close to it and I thought it was very dangerous. The way Eoghan fell, you know when a guy falls like that they’re in bother but the play went on. I was annoyed by that.”
McLaughlin was due to undergo surgery for a double-jaw fracture on Sunday and won't play football again for some time. Dublin have been wonderful champions. But the last hour of their era of splendour was far from their finest. Nonetheless, several of their players lingered to congratulate the victors afterwards. There was a sense that they knew that this judgement would be served by Mayo.
“Dublin supporters, by and large, still remember when there was a dearth of success in this county,” said Farrell. “That’s not too long ago. I’m sure they appreciate what’s gone on in the last number of years.”
Mayo footballers like O’Shea and Keegan had begun the quest for a perfect season when this Dublin odyssey started in 2011. On Saturday night they still were: under lights, broken by nothing, lost in joy and turning to another final, another tilt. Some spirit.